Book review / Onward and upward; Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20

Michael Tanner meets a philosopher who always looks on the bright side

This book is a stone which is trying to kill two birds that are further apart than Bryan Magee may realise. The first is the author's intellectual autobiography, and begins with some delightful passages in which he recalls his early childhood perplexities about the moment when one goes to sleep, the infinity of space and time, and the bewildering way in which the body obeys the will. Later Magee was to find that Kant had preceded him in feeling some of these worries, as well as offering remarkable accounts of their relationship to what we can and can't know.

That takes him on to his second subject, the nature of the philosophical enterprise. He considers some of its major western contributors over the millennia, and repeatedly excoriates 20th-century philosophy as practised in the majority of the universities of the UK. Magee considers this a self-serving affair of professionals with no serious intellectual concerns, who kill any serious interests which their pupils might have and write in a manner calculated to put off anyone but their colleagues.

By contrast with "analytic" or "linguistic" philosophers, Magee has spent most of his life outside of academe, usually earning his keep by pursuing a media career while preserving enough time to study the great issues in depth.

His mode of education has been enviable. "I would take longer works with me on my travels and soak in them for weeks at a time," he recalls: "Kant's Critique of Pure Reason during six weeks in the quiet heart of Majorca, the collected dialogues of Plato in Salzburg, Heidegger's Sein und Zeit in Bayreuth, the Confessions of St Augustine in Sicily, Hume's Enquiries in Sweden, the works of Leibniz on Lake Garda, Pascal in the West of England."

In between these depth excursions, Magee often took part in trail-blazing intellectual chat shows on TV, pursued a career as a critic of opera, records, the theatre. He wrote books on the way forward for Labour, on homosexuality, Wagner and Karl Popper; and had periodic sojourns in universities.

But something was lacking, despite seeming "to have everything I could reasonably want - good health, energy, an adventurous life, rewarding friendships, exhilarating love affairs, success in my work, exciting travel, the sustained nourishment of music, theatre, reading". Simply: "The realisation hit me like a demolition crane that I was inevitably going to die".

A couple of chapters later things are still just as bad: "I had published eight books, stood for parliament twice, and for some years had been appearing on a regular peak-hour television programme. In a way I was a sort of minor celebrity; I was recognised by strangers in the street, addressed by name in shops and restaurants, asked for my autograph. But none of this had any value for me."

The search for meaning went on. Magee had the privilege of knowing Popper and Russell well, but though he regards them as probably the two greatest geniuses of philosophy in our century, they had nothing to say on the issues which plagued his life, to that point where he often felt he was going mad. Even after writing his philosophical novel Facing Death he is still dissatisfied. Three chapters later still, "I had published several books that had received good reviews, and I was earning my living enjoyably as a broadcaster on radio and television."

It was only when, finally, after reading all the other great philosophers, he turned to Schopenhauer - notoriously neglected by academic philosophers - that he at last found someone who had felt the problems he felt, and went at least some way to assuaging the anguish they cause. "He speaks to me as no other philosopher does, direct and in his own human voice, a fellow-spirit, a penetratingly perceptive friend, with a hand on my elbow and a twinkle in his eye."

The two chapters on Schopenhauer are the climax of this long book. Anyone who has heard something about Schopenhauer but not much is likely to expect, and justifiably, that a lengthy consideration of him will mention that, most unusually in the western tradition, he was a pessimist. That word doesn't occur in Magee's book, and by design. He holds the extraordinary view that Schopenhauer got most things impressively more right than other philosophers, but that he made a mistake in being a pessimist - an ill- advised optional extra to his overall view.

That seems to me so monumental a blunder as almost to disarm criticism. But over and over again, Magee registers his dissent from views in terms which leave it unclear that he has any basic grasp of them. Kant, his second most admired thinker, gets a roughly similar treatment to Schopenhauer.

And Magee's criticisms of analytic philosophy, with what he considers its sterile confinement to issues of language rather than of reality, show that he hasn't ever seriously considered the fundamental issue of how one is to find out the nature of the real merely by taking thought.

Fairly early on, rebuking Wittgenstein in Russell-like terms for ratting at "the grave and important task of understanding the world," he summarises what he believes to be true: "the perception that there is something mystical about the very existence of the world; the realisation that any significance that life has is transcendental, as must be also all values, morals, and the import of art; and that it is for that reason inherently impossible to give a satisfactory account in language of these things".

As an old-style unregenerate analytic philosopher, in part, I want to ask Magee why he thinks that "I ought not to write spitefully about other people" is a transcendental truth, and even what that might mean. No answer is forthcoming. This book chattily goes on its way, at what I can only describe as a middlebrow level. Big issues are constantly wielded, but since their resolution inevitably turns out to be transcendental, no one will be left the wiser, except as to the driving impulses in the life of Bryan Magee.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect